Archives for the month of: March, 2012

Ingredients: Any of the resources you have at home and a willing attitude to be calm, kind and firm in helping your little person adapt to the bigger world around them.

The Big Sell: Here are your options – what choice would you like to make?

Strategy:  If you were to visit my house right now, you would find a very small, apparently cute, and innocent-enough looking but deadly serious dictator. He is three in two weeks time, and has to have his favourite food, bowl, cushion, socks, toy in hand, story, TV programme, etc.. at the time of his choosing or all hell breaks loose.

I’ve agonised over experts’ opinions on the ‘correct disciplinary steps’ and concluded I prefer a ‘let’s make it through one day at a time’ approach, not expecting too much or a one-size fits all solution, reminding myself that all his control-freak obsessions are a completely normal response to the independence he is learning to develop.

However, I’ve found a few handy hints can help along the way, and they include trying to build in as much as creativity and choice as possible, whilst steering him firmly but kindly down the path that will help him grow safe and happy.

1)      Shopping: I made own Velcro-backed food options stuck to a large sheet of cardboard (as above)so my boy can be my special helper as I drive him round in a trolley or buggy.  We also sing songs at top volume and talk endlessly about any topic of his choosing, regardless of funny looks. It worked wonderfully between the ages of 2 – 4 for my eldest son and even now he says “I miss doing the food shopping with you!”

2)     Clothes: in my book, this one isn’t worth fighting over. My two sons have chosen to leave the house in the most bizarre, weather-inappropriate outfits you can imagine – bow ties with Bermuda shorts for example – but at least they are happy and, hey, it makes strangers smile!

3)     Role-play: once safe in the home, I encourage him to engage in as much adult-modelled role-play as I can, helping with ‘fixing’, ‘washing up’, ‘bathing dollies’, etc… including him as much as I can in the family routines in a positive way. For instance, I couldn’t understand why my son didn’t want to go on his potty in the corner of the living room (so he had enough time to reach it) until I realised he wanted it upstairs in the toilet where everyone else goes.

4)     Potty training: And while we’re on the subject of potty training, for my eldest I made a ‘social story’ by stapling together some blank pages and writing out the easy steps he needed to achieve, and the effects his actions would have on those around him. E.g. X pulls his trousers down and sits on the potty – Mummy is so proud! … X washes his hands with the soap – it is fun! You can include photos or little pictures of each step to make it more visually stimulating. (Note: these are often used in teaching children with Autism – see this link:

5)     Food: if you have a fussy eater like I do (and like I was when I was little!) this can be a major battle ground. I’ve found the only way the Dictator and I can reach a compromise is for me to cook him foods which I know are ‘ok’ (so no asking for extraordinary feats of bravery) but contain at least some semblance of a balanced diet (often hidden – home-made veggie soup or carrot grated on homemade pizza) and then I firmly in a calm quiet voice insist that this is all there is to eat until it is finished. I don’t shout or get angry, but I also don’t back down or offer any pudding until at least 75% of it is gone. Then he can have his own choice from an easy to reach cupboard filled with healthy cereal bars, fruit bars and fruit pots. He is allowed special treats of homemade cupcakes / cookies (often packed out with porridge oats to fill tummies) after meals are done if still hungry. Outside of main meals times I try not to let him fill up on snacks, and also have learnt when his natural food times and give him his biggest meals then. I’m sure some experts would disagree with this and in an ideal world there would be no perception of ‘yummy’ or ‘yucky’ foods (in his words), but I have had to find a middle ground. Plus I always give him vitamins to supplement his diet and don’t expect the same behaviour when he’s anxious in other people’s houses!

6)     Messy play for tactile defensive children: often fussy eaters are also ‘tactile defensive’, meaning they don’t like mess, gunk, goo, anything that feels strange or unpredictable, such as sand, runny sauces, sticky play dough. I’m not having any of this in my household! When my youngest started freaking out on the beach, I made him a large sand box in our back garden and filled it with diggers, dinosaur bones and other treasures. I regularly make batches of homemade play and modelling dough of a variety of stickiness. You can also fill trays with jelly, soil, porridge oats, rice, flour, paint, etc.. and let them experiment with getting their hands, toy cars, potato prints messy and learning that this will not harm them. When summer started last year and we first went out barefoot, he also freaked out about the ants and started trying to climb up my body! This only lasted a week as we started insect-collecting together, putting them in matchboxes and gradually letting them run over our hands, he began to see them as our friends, pointing our daddies, mummies and babies according to size. [If your child goes to playgroup for a few hours, you can try to leave a few trays with activities in tempting spots when they come home (ready with some kitchen roll for mishaps!) and just leave them to it, to give no added pressure.]

The verdict:

This age can be a real challenge, and I have produced two sons who are very vocal about what they want (and don’t want) in life, which has been difficult at times. The hardest moments come from older generations who are sometimes (but not always) liable to say things like “Well, we didn’t stand for that in my day!” which is particularly unhelpful mid-public tantrum. Occasionally we’ve had to shut them in their room for a short time (a minute for every year of their life) to “calm down”, but I rarely use naughty steps or reward charts. I’ve found its far better to take a preventative approach by prioritising their choices and giving positive praise where possible, and establishing a dialogue which encourages useful language to name the big feelings they are discovering for the first time. For instance, we use a lot of puppet and drama play which explores feelings and behaviours, such as sad / happy / angry, kind / unkind, helpful / unhelpful – meaning both parties are less likely to fall  back on words, such as naughty /  stupid which I worry will lower their self-esteem and attach harmful labels.

For more information on a liberal approach see this article reported this week about a Montessori approach:

I also think it’s been important for me to establish realistic expectations for my children and myself in stressful situations. Second time round, I don’t expect the terrible two’s to last for two weeks (they lasted for about 3 years with my first son), don’t expect a naughty step to be a cure-all, and don’t expect to always get it right. Instead I aim for the ‘good enough’ parenting model, in which we both try to do better tomorrow and give myself treats at the end of a hard day to ‘thank myself’ even if my child isn’t ready to thank me yet for my tolerance and patience. And I definitely don’t enter into competitions with other mums about whose child is best behaved – I use my friendships as a sounding board for the hardest bits and with relief find out no one else’s child is perfect either.

When all else fails, I remind myself that nothing frightens me more than an overly passive child, afraid to speak out in company and nervous about making their own suggestions. By establishing respect through offering choices and rewarding for kind, helpful and considerate behaviours, I believe children develop a solid sense of right and wrong and respectful relationships with others.

Catchphrase: From my ‘tactile defensive’ dictator yesterday morning: “Mummy, your car’s all messy!”

Me: “Oh dear, do I need to tidy it up?”

Him: “Yes”

Me:“Oh I’m sorry I don’t meet your exacting standards, my lovely boy. Shall we do it together this weekend?!”

Left wanting more?

So many wonderful books for this age group to choose from:

  • You Choose, by Nick Sharratt & Pippa Goodhart, published by Corgi Children
  • I want my potty! (and all the Little Princess books) by Tony Ross, published by Harper Collins
  • I have feelings! By Jana Novotny Hunter, published by Myriad Books
  • I feel Angry / I feel Frightened, by Brian Moses, published by Wayland
  • Hello Dudley / You’re Not So Scary Sid, Puppet books by Sam Lloyd, published by Templar
  • All the Alfie books by Shirley Hughes, published by Red Fox

Ingredients: Pieces of an old blanket cut into squares; fabric paints, sequins, buttons, zips, ribbon, any other sewing accessories; fabric glue; needle and thread

The Big Sell: Let’s make something big, bold and beautiful!

Strategy: It is official … knitting, sewing, all things fabric, are very much back in vogue. I visited a brilliant local social enterprise today, Blueprint 22 in Worthing (, who are just completing a graffiti knitting project soon to be exhibited in a local phone box. Back in October, the Guardian reported that knitting fever was hitting London schools with boys making scarves in their chosen cultural colours (

As we have entered into an age of austerity  we seem to have sought comfort in traditional crafts. Otherwise known as ‘People’s Art’, these skills were historically the produce of the working classes, passed down from generation to generation, as they learnt to ‘make do and mend’ at the same time as celebrating the rituals of their communities. This opens up a discussion to be had with young people about how textile arts have been and can still be used to depict our battles, stories, shared histories. So, if you are working with a group of young people and want big impact, but without the time and effort that went into the Bayeaux Tapestry ( why not try a Speed Tapestry?

I tried this one afternoon with a group of students:

1)      Provide each participant with a sheet of paper, pencil and a cut piece of fabric (I just cut up an old woollen blanket).

2)     Ask them to each think of a meaningful memory of a shared experience – for us it was the defining moment we decided to become a youth worker. It could be the time they were happiest, the thing they love most about their community, a positive image of youth.

3)     Ask them to sketch a simple image that depicts their individual memory, then show and explain it to a partner so they can check it makes sense to someone else.

4)     Once they are happy with their final image, hand out fabric paints and ask them to paint their image onto their square of fabric. They can embellish with sequins, buttons, etc… to make it as colourful and eye-catching as possible.

5)     Once everyone has contributed and the images are dry, sew together in a patchwork line or square to make a huge tapestry for display on the wall.

The Verdict:

We live in an age in which some young people have become disengaged from politics and local community action, often because it disregards their needs. Communal art work, such as banners, murals, tapestries and quilts, are a tool by which many voices can come together to shout out about the things that matter to them as a group. It is worth exploring these traditions with young people and by using a quick technique, such as fabric paints, it needn’t be inaccessible or boring. Finding a public venue for exhibition can promote each person’s unique achievement as part of a greater whole – and we need that right now more than ever.

Catchphrase: Shout out for sewing!

Left wanting more?

  • Look at Tracey Emin’s quilts to see how textile arts are no longer the province of the WI: (
  • This medium would work brilliantly as an intergenerational project, perhaps bringing together young mums with elderly women whose children are now grown, to celebrate their skills, experiences and achievements of motherhood with a collaborative tapestry.
  • As textile arts are traditionally associated with women, it would also work as a vehicle for exploring Feminist principles with young women, now often seen as irrelevant and aggressive rather than a movement for equality and freedom of expression.

Ingredients: Mod-rock (£3.50 per 5metre roll on Amazon), chicken wire & poster paints; DIY or shop-bought modelling clay (see recipe below or £6.75 for 1kg on Amazon); junk modelling of any sort you have to hand.

The Big Sell: As my Nana always said “I want doesn’t get!” but if you want to make your own … it does!

Strategy: Is your beloved child desperate for the latest Star Wars / Harry Potter [insert any merchandising nightmare of your choice] toy, which is out of your price range? I’ve found if children are given the option of making their own robot / space ship / stage set etc.. they are equally if not more happy with the result, than if one was bought for them. Our home is homage to many DIY replicas from my son’s latest craze.

Here’s an easy guide to modelling a Make-Your-Own toy:

1)      Wearing your thickest gardening gloves and pliers, get snipping some chicken wire into the shape of your choice (in the case above, R2-D2). Make sure the sharp ends are bent into the centre of the model – this is a job best done by an adult. Once the shape is formed, cover the kitchen table in plastic sheeting and soak cut lengths of mod rock (bandage soaked in plaster of paris) in water before draping them onto the wire frame. This is a job your child will really enjoy joining in with as it’s methodical and messy! The boring bit is waiting for the plaster to set (leave for a good 24 hours to be sure) then get painting your design. Hey presto, one life-size R2-D2 for your child to enjoy!

 2)     Follow this recipe to make your own air-drying clay if you can’t afford to buy any:

1 cup cornflour

2 cups salt

1 cup warm water

You add food colouring if you want. Mix together in a pan on a low heat, until it becomes sticky and solidified. Then knead with your hands (you may have to do this until it becomes cool enough for your child to handle).

This clay should keep pliable for at least a week if wrapped well in cling-film. When your child is ready, they can model their clay into any shape of their choice, and leave to dry for at least 24 hours to ensure it goes hard and dry all the way through. Once dry, they can paint if they wish. Good for modelling their favourite characters, both baddies and goodies – you could make a marvellous snake or three-headed dog for Harry Potter to battle.

3)     Junk modelling – THE staple activity in our household. The only problem a parent faces with junk modelling is gauging the right time to sneakily disassemble and return their models back into the recycling bin, otherwise the house would be over-run with their masterpieces! My eldest junk-models EVERY DAY after school, and no cereal box, bottle, straw, piece of string, egg box is safe as it goes straight into his Junk modelling box which lives in an easy access spot beside a sellotape dispenser and some decent scissors. He recently made The Chamber of Secrets by combining a cylindrical tube in the top of a large cardboard box, with a tangle of green wool hanging below for Devil’s Snare and shiny foil for the watery lake. We simply added chess pieces & a toy snake, and his Harry Potter figurine could drop in to his very own sophisticated stage set.

The Verdict: In my experience, it tends to be adults who discriminate between shop bought and homemade toys – children are not so fussy as long as they can indulge their latest passion. Modelling of any kind provides a child with the feeling that their dreams are within their own grasp – rather than waiting for birthdays (by which time they’ve often lost interest in the latest fad) this offers an immediate and animated way of bringing to life the stories which occupy their imaginations.  Given a little mess and patience, modelling isn’t tricky and provides grand results for your efforts – a satisfying activity to work on together.

Catchphrase: Right … who can provide the best R2-D2 sound effects?!

Left wanting more?

  • The grand masters of modelling, and homegrown UK heroes, have to be Aardman Animations – creators of Wallace & Gromit, Morph & Shaun the Sheep – all favourites in our house. You can buy a Make Your Own Morph set – £9.10 on Amazon currently – which includes a DVD. I love that our homemade Wallace and Gromit figurines have been given superb play possibilities by being combined with an electric train set or a junk-modelled Dog Food Crusher machine, we can recreate their best screen moments.
  • Once you’ve mastered the basics of modelling you could move on to live animation. I’ll follow up how to tackle this in a later blog! (To be cont ….)